Accommodating the newcomers

By Wu Chunsi, July 1, 2015

In Round One, my roundtable colleague Nancy Gallagher expressed concern that antisatellite weapons might increase the risk of nuclear war. Her concern stems from the desire both to prevent catastrophic war and to maintain security in outer space. I share those desires—but I still believe, as I expressed in Round One, that policies allowing the first use of nuclear weapons are the greatest contributor to the risk of nuclear exchanges.

Two participants in this roundtable devoted significant attention in the first round to no-first-use policies. Both authors, interestingly, represent nations that are newcomers to outer space—India in Bharath Gopalaswamy's case and China in mine. (Gallagher also advocated for "nuclear-armed nations [to espouse] unequivocal no-first-use policies," but it was not a primary focus of her first-round essay.) Gopalaswamy and I share another point of similarity: He wrote extensively in Round One about concerns in Washington that Beijing might challenge US space supremacy, while I wrote about the necessity of ensuring newcomers' rights in space (that is, ensuring that the dominant space power does not infringe on others' rights). Is it a coincidence that authors representing China and India perceive first-use policies and US dominance in space as integral to a discussion of antisatellite weapons? Not at all—newcomers to space will naturally share concerns and policy preferences that differ from those of the dominant power.

Accommodating the concerns of space newcomers is thus a key issue for the United States and the broader international community. Two issues are critical if nations are to build healthy, stable, and cooperative space relationships. First, space must be kept open. As Gallagher noted in Round One, space is seen as "free for all states to use in accordance with international law"—and it must remain so. Any attempt to monopolize space for one nation's interests would be counterproductive. Second, laws and regulations must be established that guarantee nations' proper behavior in outer space.

China is willing to follow international laws and regulations—as long as they are fair and just. But Beijing regards as unfair the pressure that is being exerted on China regarding antisatellite weapons. From China's perspective, antisatellite weapons are just one variety of space weapon. In fact, China (along with other nations) has long proposed a treaty banning all weapons in space. The United States has exhibited no willingness to engage in dialogue on such proposals. But why exactly should China accept the idea that antisatellite weapons are more dangerous than other space weapons?

Common ground. In space—as my two roundtable colleagues agree—the United States enjoys obvious advantages. China, meanwhile, is a rising power, but this does not necessarily mean that Beijing will attempt to compete with Washington in space. China has multiple reasons to engage in space activities—to spur economic development, to stimulate advances in science and technology, and of course to enhance national security. But none of these implies that China must attempt to become the number one nation in space. And even if China could better the United States in such a competition, what would the point be? If "winning" did not deliver peace, security, and development to the Chinese people, there would be no point at all. Therefore, viewing China’s space program only in security and military terms is to take too narrow a perspective. Exaggerating the dangers associated with China’s space program only creates problems. The international community should instead seek common ground and opportunities for collaboration in space.

A final note—Round One suggests that China must do a better job of elaborating to the world its space, nuclear, and defense strategies. The Chinese government has tried hard to prove that its intentions are peaceful and cooperative, but these efforts seem not to have been very successful so far. So China must display greater transparency to help dispel the international community's concerns.